Interview with 'Deliverance' Star Ronny Cox

Photo Credit: Ronny Cox
June 28th, 2012

His film Deliverance is one of the most powerful films in cinema history and as the film is celebrating it’s 40th anniversary with the release of a new special edition Blu-ray. Ronny Cox who played the role of Drew, the guitar playing city boy, reminisces with me about the film and about his new book Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance of Drew.

Nick-  Ronny how are you doing today? How’s everything out in California?

Ronny- Hey Nick, I’m doing good.  We are having a typical June day to start with.  We have cloudy overcast to start with in the morning and then it all burns off.

Nick- Do you like it in L.A?

Ronny- I do.  I grew up in New Mexico and I loved it there for the first eight years of my career and then I moved back to New York and Washington D.C.  It was exciting back there but I am more of a westerner guy I guess.

Nick- I love the west.  I really like Colorado, Nevada and Montana.

Ronny- Yeah, well I grew up in New Mexico which right below Colorado there.

Nick- So Ronny, you are famous for so many great roles in TV shows and movies like American Outlaws, Forces of Nature, Total Recall, you played Dick Jones in Robocop, which I have seen probably 45 times in my life.

Ronny- It’s being remade now you know?

Nick- I did know that.  Did you also know that they are putting up a Robocop statue in Detroit?

Ronny- Yeah they are.  They had a big screening here the other night and they wanted me to go to it but I was out of town at the Kerrville Folk Festival.
Nick- What do you think about them remaking it?  Well first off, are they remaking it or are they making a different movie with a different story line?

Ronny- I think they are remaking it and first of all I thought the film was pretty darn good.

Nick- So did I.

Ronny- Yeah, so I don’t know why they are remaking it.  I don’t like remakes and I don’t like sequels, so there you have it. 

Nick- Well I’ll always enjoy the original one.

Ronny- Me too.

Nick- Who played Robocop?

Ronny- Peter Weller.

Nick- I thought he made a really cool Robocop and I don’t know how they will do any better.

Ronny- I don’t know, but I think that is really a large triumph of Paul Verhoeven’s direction.  For a science fiction movie that was made with a very minimal budget, he made it look great.  It’s a real to tribute to he and cinematographer Jost Vacano.

Nick- When was that made?

Ronny- It was like 1988 or 1987.

Nick- It doesn’t seem like that long ago does it?

Ronny- Ha, no.

Nick- Well you where also in  Beverly Hills Cop I and Beverly Hills Cop II, plus several other great films.  Today though we are here to talk about one of the greatest roles of your career and that is the role of Drew in the 1972 classic Deliverance.

Ronny- Yeah that was my first film.

Nick- I just received the Blu-ray which marks the 40th anniversary right?

Ronny- Yes.  It came out in 1972.  Did you also get a copy of my book?

Nick- I did not get a copy of the book but I am excited to talk with you about Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance of Drew. 

Nick-  I definitely want to get my hands on it because I am a big fan of the movie. 

Ronny- Well Nick, I think you might enjoy this book.  Not only was it my first film but it was my first time in front of a camera and it’s Ned Beatty’s first film to, which most people don’t know.
That was our big break and that film has meant so much to me because it has completely changed my life.  Before that I had never made more than six thousand dollars in one year as an actor.  All of the sudden I was up for roles that I never could of imagined before that. It changed my life dramatically and the film has become such an iconic film that I have written this book of us making Deliverance, told from my point of view.

Nick- This book came out in May this year, is that right?

Ronny- Yes, it just came out.  The Blu-ray is coming out June 26th and my book came out May 29th.  They are sort of coming out together.

Nick- In the Blu Ray there is a flyer about your book.

Ronny- There is and I am really delighted about that. I don’t know if you’ve seen the other material in that but there is like four hours in addition to the movie of interviews with the four actors, John Boorman’s commentary, and a documentary on the making of things that happened on the river.  It’s really a fascinating book that Warner Bros. has done.  Have you had chance to look over it?

Nick-  Yeah I have.  I was reading it today because I had just gotten it in the mail and there was two things that I just couldn’t believe.  First, how Billy wasn’t really playing the banjo and secondly, your arm in your death scene and how you could twist your arm like that.

Ronny- Yeah that’s actually me.

Nick- It’s a fantastic book and I can’t wait to watch all the interviews.  Are the interviews from when it was filmed or are they recent?

Ronny- In January, the four of us got together and they sat us around in a circle and put a camera on each of us while having one camera to tie them all together going back and forth.  The four of us sat and reminisced for about three hours on the making of Deliverance.  I had just written the book so a lot of those stories were really fresh in my mind.  It was a pretty good thing with the four of us sitting around telling the stories of Deliverance.  They’ve got a commentary with John Boorman going through the whole film walking you through each scene, which is pretty incredible.

Nick- I first saw the film in high school because of how iconic and powerful this film is.

Ronny- And it’s taken on even more of an iconic status.  It’s been given a special commendation by the Library of Congress and I’ve heard recently that Deliverance has become either the second, or third, most mentioned film in the history of film, and of all the films that I’ve ever done, more people want to talk about Deliverance than any other. There are more sort of myths about it like what you said about how people didn’t know that Billy Redden didn’t really play the banjo, and they didn’t know about my arm, and they didn’t know that we shot the film in sequence.  That it was mine and Ned’s first film and that we did all the stunt work ourselves.  There are just a lot of things about that movie that people are fascinated with and by.

Nick- Well this Blu-ray explains a lot of those myths right?

Ronny- It does in deed.  That along with my book pretty much covers the whole thing.

Nick- Now where can people find the book at?

Ronny- It’s available on Amazon or just about any place where books are sold.  It’s available on Kindle, or paperback, or hardback.

Nick- You mentioned how this was your first film, did you get the part of Drew because you could play the guitar or did you bring that to the film?

Ronny- They didn’t know I played guitar when they first meet me but the fact that I could play was instrumental, pun intended (haha), of me getting the job.  Originally they were interested in doing this film with all unknown actors.  They came to New York looking for unknown actors and boy was I unknown.  I think I was the first actor they saw in New York and I met with John Boorman a couple of times and eventually they flew a bunch of us out to California and tested us for the film, and out of that group of people they tested I was essentially the only actor they liked.  A couple weeks later they tested another group of actors and that’s where they found Ned.  Ned and I waited around for another three or four weeks while they were deciding on Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds. It may have been the first time ever that the two guys below the title were found before the two guys above the title. 

Nick- Did all four of you prepare together?  I know you probably had to do some work on the river before you shot this movie.

Ronny- Oh absolutely.  We went down to Georgia and we had two weeks before we started shooting.  Two weeks of us rehearsing every scene and having canoe practice, working on archery, and me working on the guitar.  Two really intense weeks of doing that and getting to know what we were getting into because this was a really heroing film to shoot.  It wasn’t just a heroing film story wise, it was heroing to prepare and to shoot as well.  That’s another reason we shot it in sequence because we did all the canoeing ourselves.  In the beginning of the film the rapids are easy and they get harder at the end.  By the time we got to the really hard rapids the four of us had been on the water six or eight hours a day for five or six weeks, and had become, by that time, pretty damn good canoeists.  We are all pretty good athletes to begin with but when you have that many hours on the water you get better and better.  We dumped in the water a lot but when you dump in the water you’re like, 'oh I won’t do that next time.’

Nick- I’ve been white water rafting and canoeing and I bet that would be so annoying if you didn’t get the scene right, you have to go back to where you started from.

Ronny- Exactly. And that’s another reason why I think the film has become such an iconic film. I don’t care how good stunt people are because when you see a close up of a guy and then you see a long shot of someone whose body is kind of like that persons, you can tell the difference.  Your mind tries to think that that’s the real person but it just doesn’t work.  When you see these guys that are the guys actually doing this stuff, you know that these guys are going through the rapids and all those things.  It pays off in ways that you can’t even imagine.

Nick- You guys must of been in the best shape of your lives.

Ronny- Yeah, and imagine doing it in a wooden Old Town Canoe which is not even intended for white water.  One of the reasons that Jon Voight and I wrecked as many times as we did was because, plot-wise, we needed to have a wooden Old Town canoe so it would break in half at the end.  Those kind of canoes are not intended for that, they have very deep drafts so they don’t go over rocks very well, they’re fragile, and they don’t have very much stability.  The aluminum canoe has a much shallower draft and is very broad at the bottom and has much, much, more stability.  As a rule of thumb, Burt and Ned would run a set of rapids and if they had any problems at all then the crew would make big bets that Voight and I would wreck, and we did (haha).
Nick- It’s such a great movie Ronny and I have to ask you, where you actually playing the guitar in that famous scene with Billy?

Ronny- I was and I wasn’t.  Let me explain that: Since Billy Redden, who is a marvelous actor, could not play the banjo at all and didn’t even know enough about the banjo to use his left hand, we ended up out of necessity having to match the playback. So, in other words it was going to have to be pre-recorded and then we were going to have to act like we were playing it.  When it came to record the song I think John Boorman wanted me to play the song but it was played by Steve Mandell.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not nearly a good as good of a guitarist as Steve, but I’m a pretty good guitarist, I’m an amature guitarist.  So I matched the playback, and if I had done it we wouldn’t of had a number one hit song, but John Boorman was not interested in making a number one hit song.  He liked the idea that this young boy just was smoking this amature city slicker.  He didn’t care if I kind of looked bad, plus, I would of had to miss a day of canoe practice and a day of rehearsal to go to Atlanta and record the song.  Did I match the playback note for note? Did I play it? Yes. Is that actually me on the soundtrack? No, and that probably cost me about a gazillion dollars.
Nick- Ronny thank you so much and I am going to tell everyone to check out this new Blu-ray for the 40th anniversary of Deliverance and tell everyone to pick up your new book Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance of Drew.

R- Thanks Nick.